Scratchbuilt Building in 1 Day

The next scene on my home HO model railroad is a logging area. I need one simple wooden building which would depict a site office. My last post outlined my first-time use of a Cricut Maker machine to cut out the wood components for a building flat. This project is a simple building but is a complete structure, with four walls, a peaked roof, a floor, two windows and a door. This building needs shingles so I thought I would see if I could create my own shingles using the Cricut.

I began by drawing the desired dimensions on graph paper (when I took this picture I had not yet drawn the floor).



The following photograph is a closeup of the front, back and side walls just after being cut by the Cricut using its knife blade. The machine took 18 cuts of the pattern, going slightly deeper each time, to cut through the 1/16 inch thick board-and-batten siding which I purchased from Mt. Albert Scale Lumber (part of Fast Tracks). After taking this photograph I removed the pieces from the sticky Cricut cutting mat and gently passed a file around the edges to remove leftover wood fibres, of which there were few.


Next, I stained all components using my homemade medium wood stain (recipe is 2 teaspoons of Fiebing's Cordovan leather die in 8 ounces of 70% isopropyl alcohol). I always stain both sides of all pieces because this greatly reduces warping. I place the stained pieces in front of a small fan to speed up the drying process which also reduces warping.


I then added dimensional basswood bracing to the edges of the walls:


Here is a photograph of my first attempt at making a sheet of shingles using the Cricut maker. This was using the machine's fine cutting blade. I used a sheet of commercial shingles that I had on hand to come up with the dimensions. I can't recall the source of the paper because I purchased a package of it several years ago and the label is missing - I probably purchased this from Michaels. It is 8.5 X 11 inches, brown and about the thickness of construction paper but with a slightly smoother finish. The paper has no self-adhesive backing but that did not turn out to be a problem.


Here is a picture of the beginnings of the application of the shingles:


Note that I used scribed wood for the roof panels. I thought that the lines in the material would come in handy for ensuring that the shingles were straight - this worked very well and avoided having to draw lines on the material. As this was 1/16 inch thick scribed wood I used my detail power sander to reduce its thickness somewhat by sanding the reverse smooth side. I did this because the 1/16 inch thickness looked a little too thick for the scale of the building.

I applied Aileen's Tacky Glue to the entire top surface of the wood and let it dry. I then poured some Aileen's Tacky Glue into the white bottle cap in the above photograph and added water equal to roughly 1/8 of the quantity of glue. This was to make the glue slightly runny and easier to apply with a brush.

In the above picture, you will note that the first row of shingles has already been applied. I used the brush to apply a bead of glue to where the next strip will be located, making sure that only a very small amount of the glue found its way on top of the first strip of shingles - I was trying to avoid having any more glue than possible ooze out from under the shingles. This technique worked very well because the scribed wood roof surface allowed excess glue to squeeze through the grooves in the wood before it squeezed between the shingles. The reason that I covered the roof with glue and let it dry before starting this process is that Aileen's Tacky Glue will become sticky again when it gets wet so the slightly runny glue adhered extremely well to the surface, and did so very quickly.

I did try painting Aileen's Tacky Glue to an entire sheet of paper and letting it dry. My plan was to run this through the Cricut once the glue had dried on the backside and then rewet the glue when I applied it (the way postage stamps used to work) - this did NOT work as the paper curled up very badly as the glue dried. I shall experiment with other techniques in the future.

Here is a shot of one-half of a microscope slide cover glued to the inside over one of the Tichy windows:


Finally, here are front and back shots of the completed structure. The entire project from start to finish took about 4 hours of elapsed time during a 24 hour period. I am delighted with the way that the Cricut Maker machine works. All of the pieces fit perfectly in alignment and all cuts are perfectly square - as precise as a laser-cut commercial kit.

I sparingly applied another of my homemade wood stain to the lower half of the structure to depict further weathering, this time for a more grey look (recipe: 1/8 teaspoon of Fiebing's black leather dye in 8 ounces of 70% isopropyl alcohol). If you add too much black die the resulting black has a blue tinge).




Scratchbuilt Building in a Weekend

The other members of our model railroad club, the Echo Valley Railroad Guild, sometimes rib me over how quickly I sometimes get things done. This time I have to admit that I outdid myself. Today is Sunday at noon. I just came from my model railroad room after putting in place a new scratchbuilt building that I started on Friday afternoon at about 2 PM

On Friday I set about designing a skinny building that is needed in a narrow place against the backdrop of my layout. Put another way, it is like a deeper than usual building flat in that it will have an interior and be lit with LED lighting. The building is made from scribed 1/16 inch basswood and depicts the home of a ficticious building in Salmon Arm, British Columbia on my HO model railroad. The business is named Henry James Ltd. - Manufacturer of Fine Furniture. My late brother's name was Henry James. He died in 2018 after a short but painful struggle with cancer.

I started with a pencil sketch drawn out in 1:1 dimensions on 11" x 17" graph paper:


The building is two-storey with a slab front and a railway platform for receiving raw material and shipping product.

My wife and I recently purchased a Cricut Maker cutting machine. I would say that I am 20% up the learning curve on how to use the Cricut. This the first project for which I have used the machine to precisely cut out major components.

Using the above drawing I created a digital drawing in Cricut to the precise dimensions. Since I am using Tichy HO Scale windows and doors for this project I measured these items very precisely so the openings cut by the Cricut would be as precise as possible. I did a small amount of filing of the openings in a couple of places to ensure a good fit.

Here is a picture of my computer screen before doing the cutting with the Cricut:

The horizontal pieces toward the bottom of the image are 1/16" slots into which the platform will be inserted and glued in place.

Because the Cricut was to cut through 1/16" basswood it needed the knife cutting blade inserted:

The basswood sheet is placed on a Cricut Strong Grip cutting mat. A few passes were made with a brayer tool to ensure that the adhesion was good:

Before starting the print I also used masking tape around the wood, as recommended by Cricut to ensure that the wood cannot shift out of place (a "belts and suspenders" caution):


The print file was then sent by Bluetooth to the Cricut and it cut out all of the openings in the basswood. The job took about 20 minutes because the knife made 14 passes to gently cut through the wood.

I next stained the wood with my homemade concoction of wood stain made from leather dye in 70% Isopropyl Alcohol and fastened the doors and windows in place (after having painted them with an airbrush using Vallejo acrylic paint).

Next, I added glass microscope slides covers
behind the windows, gluing these in place with canopy glue. I also added some strip wood braces to ensure that the basswood won't warp over time:


I added 4 warm white LED's to the back of the front wall, facing the back wall which will have a photograph image attached to show the semblance of an interior:


I then used the Cricut to cut out the platform, with corresponding slots (actually you can see in the above photograph that the platform has already been installed as the slots show the wood tabs glued in place) as well as braces to under the platform. I used the Cricut to cut the braces out of 0.020 inch styrene sheet. This is what the braces looked like before being removed from the cutting mat and being painted black.


I made a back wall out of 1/16" chipboard, which is like a dense cardboard. To that I glued photographs of commercial shelving units I obtained online and edited to size using Microsoft Word. I printed the images onto ordinarily printer paper. Because the viewer is looking through windows that are about 30 inches away the image of the shelving units gives a good suggestion that there is a complete interior.


In the picture below the back wall has been attached. The wiring for the interior lighting can be seen coming out of the bottom of the building. I did not bother with a floor as the building sits directly on the layout surface.


I made the sidewall of the building angle slightly inwards towards the centre of the building (around 15 degrees). This is to avoid the somewhat disconcerting effect of seeing a building wall abutting the scenery which, in my opinion, looks goofy. If your eyes don't see where the building meets the backdrop your brain tends to see the building as being much deeper than the 1-inch depth that it is.

Finally, a few shots of the completed building. I created the sign using Microsoft Word. In memory of my dear late brother Henry, I added another sign which depicts the business's slogan. This shows that my brother and I shared a somewhat irreverent sense of humour. The borders of both signs were cut from 0.020" styrene using the Cricut.



From beginning to end this project took about 14 hours to design, create the pieces, paint, stain, assemble and add lighting. The use of the Cricut didn't save any time because the time I saved on having to cut out the openings was taken creating the digital file using the Cricut software, preparing the material for printing and then doing the printing. However, the Cricut really shines by ensuring that the doors and windows are precisely placed and cut. I am quite pleased with how this project turned out. Next up is to add some ballast to the tracks as well as some ground cover, trees and shrubs.



Making Highway and Similar Signs

If you want your model railroad to capture a prototypical look it needs a lot of signs. Next time you are out walking or driving in either the city or the country, pay particular attention to the signs posted on streets, highways, parking lots, etc. In a few blocks, you will see hundreds of you take the time to look for them.

I like to make my own signs. It is very easy and inexpensive and allows you to create pretty much any sign you want, in any size.

These are the steps I follow:

  • Consider what signs you would like to see in your particular scene (stop, yield, slow, turns, handicap parking, PPE require, muster point, do not enter, private property, and the list goes on).
  • Do an internet search to determine, for standard signs, the prototype dimensions of your sign. These can be quickly found online. If in doubt, take your measuring tape with you the next time you are out.
  • Calculate the dimensions of your sign appropriate to the scale of your model railroad. For example, say the highway sign you are modelling is 100 centimetres (39 inches) by 60 centimetres (24 inches). If you are modelling in HO the ratio is 1:87. Simply divide the above dimensions by 87 which results in 1.15 cm (.45 inches) by  0.69 cm (0.27 inches).
  • Search the sign you are looking for on Google or Bing and save the image as a jpeg file.
  • Open your favourite word processing software. I use Microsoft Word. Create a new document then, under the insert menu at the top of the screen, select shapes and then "new drawing canvas". Adjust the "handles" on the perimeter of the drawing canvas to be large enough to accommodate all the signs you want to work with.
  • With the cursor clicked inside the drawing canvas, still under the insert menu at the top of the screen select "Pictures" from the ribbon and locate the jpeg file you saved in step 4.
  • Double click on the image. At the top right of the ribbon, you will see choices labelled "size". These include the "crop" feature as well as the horizontal and vertical measurements of the image. Type in dimensions of your desired printed sign dimensions.
  • You can stop here and print the one sign or repeat the process as many times as you wish to create many different signs.
  • Insert glossy photo quality paper into your colour printer. Print the page using "best" quality and "colour" and ensure that the correct type of paper has been selected in your printer settings.
  • Using spray adhesive, following the directions on the can, fasten the page to the dull side of a piece of aluminum foil large enough to cover the area behind all of the sign images. Leave this to dry overnight (it takes some time to dry because the aluminum foil doesn't "breath" and photo quality paper also has a fairly rigid surface to it). Following is an example of what the project looks like at this stage:


  • Roughly cut out each of the sign images with scissors.
  • Using a fresh single-edge razor blade carefully cut around each sign, ensuring that the cut goes cleanly through both the paper and the foil. It is good to use a self-healing mat for this and to press down on the razor blade to make the cut rather than dragging the blade across the surface.

  • Determine how high your sign is to be above the layout surface and cut appropriate styrene or wood pieces the desired length, allowing for room to fasten into the surface in a small hole. Standard sign heights can also be found quite readily online or again by measuring a prototypical sign and scaling the distance down to your modelling dimensions. I like to use either 4 inch X 4 inch or 6 inch X 6 inch styrene for this, depending on the sign.
  • Fasten the sign to the post (or directly to the side of a building, if appropriate) using appropriate adhesive. I like canopy glue for this because it sticks almost anything and has no odor. You can use cyanoacrylate but I stay away from this unless absolutely necessary because I suffer severe sneezing and extreme runny nose between 6 and 10 hours after using CA glue - usually in the middle of the night, which is most unpleasant!
  • If you want to make your own custom signs, follow the steps above but at the step where I say to insert a picture into the drawing canvas, insert a text box. Type your wording in the text box using your desired font. Adjust the background colour and the font colour and proceed using the same instructions as above. 
Here are a few of the completed signs.


Photograph Stacking Software

Have you ever been frustrated when taking close-up photographs of your layout? Often the images in the foreground are in focus while those in the distance are not, or vice versa. It can be difficult to get everything in focus, especially indoors where the light isn't as strong as it is outdoors and where there is considerable variation in the relative distances of various objects from the camera lens.

The main issue at play is the physics of lenses and what is known as "depth-of-field". I won't get into any of the technicalities because there is a lot of information online explaining depth-of-field. I prefer to offer a solution, particularly for close-up model railroad scenery photographs.

Here is a digital photograph of a scene in which the foreground is in focus but the background is not (note that the "slow" highway sign is sharp but the flatbed trailer in the distance is out of focus):


Here is the same scene in which the background is in focus but the foreground is not (the "slow" highway sign is out of focus but the flatbed trailer is sharp).


The locomotive was stationary in both photographs.

Photograph stacking software analyses several photographs that are identical, aside from each having different areas in focus, aligns them and uses algorithms to digitally create a new photograph taking the best portions of each. The general guidelines for success are that each photograph needs to be taken from the same place (a tripod or placing the camera on a solid object works best) and the more photographs that are taken, the better so the software has lots of sharp areas to choose from.

There are several such software products on the market. I have been using Zerene Stacker. It cost me just over C$100 for the personal use version. You can download a free 30-day trial to try it out before buying.

As a test, I used my Samsung Galaxy S10 to take the two photographs above with the phone being held in my hands instead of being mounted on the recommended tripod. Again, as a test, I took only these two shots instead of the recommended multiple shots.

Even with only these two photographs, Zerene Stacker produced the following result which is quite good. Had I taken five or ten shots using a tripod the result would likely have been even better.


In situations where you want photographs that are in focus from front to back this software comes in handy, no matter whatever it is you are trying to capture.

Okanagan Seed & Feed - completed scene

Now that my Okanagan Seed & Feed industry is placed in front of Kamloops Lumber on the layout, here are a few still pictures and a 1 minute and 15-second video of the scene.


The powerhouse is in on the extreme left and the sawmill to the right of that. The burgundy-coloured building on the right is the office for the truck weigh scale.


A closer shot of the weigh sale office building.


The truck weigh scale is in the foreground and the sawmill in the background.




In this picture, you can see the machinery inside the sawmill as well as the lit interior.


The building in the foreground is the truck loader which receives product from the elevator on the right.




Following is a short video showing a train running through the scene (there is sound):